Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development

Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development: Carol Gilligan is a contemporary psychologist she has done extensive research on women’s behavior to moral hardships. Although She is an American feminist, ethicist, and psychologist, she is a founder and famous for her work on the ethics of Care and compassion.

In 1996, Time magazine featured her among America’s 25 most influential people. Carol Gilligan born on 28 November 1936 in New York, America. Gilligan received her undergraduate degree (B.A.) in English literature from Swarthmore College.

She got her master’s degree from Radcliffe College in clinical psychology and did her Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University (wrote her Doctoral Dissertation “Responses to Temptation).

Gilligan started her career as a lecturer at the University of Chicago (1965 to 1966), where she taught Introduction to Modern Social Science. In 1967 she joined Harvard University and had started lecturing on General Education as an assistant professor. In 1988 she became a full professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

From 1992 to 1994, Gilligan served as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge. She achieved Chair at Harvard in 1997 in the field of gender studies. In 2002 she left Harvard and joined New York University, where she started working as a Visiting Professor and later on in the law school of New York University (1998-2001). She has worked at the University of Cambridge as a visiting professor in the center of gender studies (2003-2009.)

It seems Gender studies and analysis has been the center of her focus from the very start of her career. Carol was an enthusiastic feminist and learned in depth about the distinctive functions of gender and it’s effect on our society.

In 1992 Gilligan’s work in her seminal book was the most notable advancement in morality.

Gilligan openly criticized her former mentor’s theory of moral development that was entirely based on rich white males’ responses. In her book, she claimed that men and women reason differently, which does not mean that women are morally inferior or deficient.

Moreover, she clarified that females have a different set of morality or have different priorities as compared to males.

What is the Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development?

Theory of Moral Development

There are many theories and motives on moral development, but our main concern is with the Gilligan distinct theory, which we are going to describe in detail.

Carol Gilligan was a research assistant to Lawrence Kohlberg; she did not agree with some of his theories and perspectives, hence decided to conduct a research of her own and work independently.

Kohlberg’s theories were based on the problems faced by men and did not conduct any particular research on women and their responses when faced with similar situations.

Conversely, the Gilligan believed that both men and women face moral challenges, and both men and women have responses that are specific, thus running a research on primarily male participants puts forth the point of view that all gender responses were generic.

She thought it is irrational to look past  half of the human race. In the case of women’s moral development, it involves caring for personal relationships. In her concept, she showed the effect of emotions on human relationships.

According to Gilligan, females are more feasible to maintain interpersonal bonds.

She suggests that it’s due to child-mother relationships; females are more likely to teach ethics and caring about personal and civil alliances. Moral development comprises of behavior, such as Care and help, generosity, comfort with aspects like sincerity, honor, and goodness.

Three Steps in Gilligan’s Theory

Steps in Gilligan’s Theory

Similar to Kohlberg’s work, Carol also proposed her theory with three stages of moral development, but with a difference in the sense. It is not based on cognitive capacities; instead, it is on a sense of self. She highlights the differences in moral development in males and females.

To understand it well lets us discuss all these stages in detail.

Through stages, names are similar to Kohlberg’s divisions; nevertheless, different expressions are applied in these stages. According to her, it all depends on the experience on which level you are. Thus did not set a particular age for a specific step.

Pre-Conventional level: The first stage of Gilligan’s theory is based on the survival of the individual. It is all about self-concern over other considerations.

Women do not care about others and mainly focuses on self needs. It is the self-building stage. It is the most initial stage of life when an individual does not have a sufficient sense of sympathy for others.

The transition to level 2 begins with an understanding of the difference between one’s own needs and other’s needs.

Conventional level: It is the stage in which individuals (females) start caring about others’ needs and desires. It develops a responsive behavior in them for others. Gradually it becomes a part of their personalities. It helps out a person to maintain their relationships.

Post-conventional: It is the stage of the universal obligation of Care. It is considered as the highest and supreme level. The individual (females), comes to be analogous to others. It is such a level when a person recognizes that it is false to hurt anyone intentionally.

Therefore, women of this category care about every single thing and try to make everyone happy. It works to give rise to a fair society.

Heinz Dilemma:

Heinz’s dilemma is famous and frequently used as an example in ethical psychology. It is the situation of a man named Heinz whose wife was on the deathbed due to a disease.

There is only one drug that could save her life. But pharmacist charges 10% more than the actual rate, even for a small quantity. He does not have enough money to buy drugs for her spouse. So there is such a situation arises that what Should Heinz have to do? There are two options either steal drugs or find any other way to get enough money.

Like Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan also uses this dilemma in her theory to find out moral facts.

Unlike Kohlberg, she presented it to both boys and girls and noticed the difference in their answers. It helped her in understanding the discrepancy between justice and care orientation. Moreover, it enabled her to find dissimilarities and similarities in the psyche of men and women.

Unlike most males, most of the girls and women acknowledge that Heinz should not steal the drug. Because if police catch him, they will put him in jail, then maybe his wife gets ill again and die while her spouse remains in prison. Regardless of some males, the majority of them were in the opinion that Heinz should not steal medicine.

Justice Orientation vs. Care Orientation:

People can use two philosophies to solve moral differences. These are a justice orientation and a care orientation. In 1988 Gilligan worked with Attanucci and described the following results: Males do not use care orientation alone though; 65 % of males use only justice orientation.

However, 32% used justice and care for both orientations. Unlike males, women show more flexibility in their behaviors. About 35% of females used care orientation, and the same number of females used justice and care mixed-orientation, while 29% used a justice-only orientation alone. This study shows that the moral sense of females is more variable than males.

Can Gilligan’s Work of Care Assume to Males?

It is the most critical question that may arise in your mind when you pass through this theory, so let’s have a look at the possibility. Although men could develop ethics of Care, however, Gilligan studies indicate that it is more likely in women. It was said the influence of both orientations quite different in both genders. She interprets that the ethics of care and the ethics of justice are linked, and studies suggest that both males and females can develop both orientations (Justice and Care). Still, females have a stronger moral orientation towards Care than in males.

Difference between Gilligan’s and Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development:

  • Gilligan’s theory is the incorporation of Freud’s dogma with Kohlberg & Piaget. Kohlberg’s technique is based on Piaget’s cognitive-developmental model, while Gilligan’s is based on a modified interpretation of Freud’s strategy to ego development.
  • Kohlberg thought that moral development and cognitive development are similar. He developed word problems for people of every age, analyzed their answers, and find results for every stage of moral development, but its study was male-centric. While Gilligan thought that he failed to show a complete picture of moral development, hence she develops her model based on the rest (women ethical Development model).
  • Kohlberg built his theory based on responses of upper-class, mainly white men and males and boys, while Gilligan mostly covered females without any racial and color discrimination.
  • Kohlberg’s theory was based on the principle of Justice that was a common and universally accepted theme. However, Gilligan established her approach to women’s facet of care and responsibilities.
  • Kohlberg showed disabilities in the moral nature of women; on the other hand, Carol not only refused his theory but also prove the moral abilities of women.
  • Kohlberg’s theory of moral development included three main stages. Similarly, Gilligan utilizes the same idea of formulating three steps like Kohlberg’s; nevertheless, she put down an entirely different theme.

Objections to Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development:

  • Many psychologists reject the moral perception of Gilligan, and they claim it through their practical researches. Many studies show that men and women have the same approaches in ethical thinking.
  • The modern researchers also criticize the method of finding facts that are by interview method. They emphasize on lack of empirical approach in theory.
  • The modern studies illustrate that there is no apparent difference between male and female moral development. However, in 1984, Lawrence Walker’s empirically found that in the ethical reasoning stage, gender disparities are exceptions. Out of 108 studies, only 8 demonstrated noticeable gender effects.
  • Feminist psychologists are divided into two groups over Gilligan’s theory. Some appreciate her work while others criticize that she locked women into caregiver personality only. Such Critiques thought that this theory ignores their diverse nature.

Carol Gilligan objections to Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development:

Gilligan objects to Kohlberg’s concept and thought it incomplete and insufficient to describe the ethics of development. She believed that it is outrageous to cut out females from this aspect. Kohlberg accomplished his analyses upon 72 males, belonging to the upper class, and females were not included in his investigation.

Besides, she refused that moral values only based upon justice; according to her, there are many more factors like care and in-person relationship.

Kohlberg assumed that women are deficient in their reasoning potentials and Gilligan was strictly disagreed with him.

The whole model and criteria of Kohlberg’s were about men and his moral development stages. In contrast, Carol Gilligan’s theory of moral development entitles characteristics (care and responsibilities) of women.


It is vital to put in all beings in any developmental psychological study to avoid gender-specific debates and conflicts.

Carol Gilligan’s theory of moral development is a complete work in the field of gender studies. The primary purpose of the Gilligan theory is to modify Kohlberg’s idea of moral development.

She changed the convectional (male-centric) way of moral psychology.

The Gilligan theory describes the prospect of ethics and the abilities of women that were neglected by Kohlberg. She formulated that women are more moralistic and are not sense disabled. She explained to the two perspectives, one is based on rights (liberal individualism), and the other is the care base.

Furthermore, she emphasized the in-person care and relationship instead of justice only.

She has proved many of her thoughts based on facts. In this level, the female has memorized that females, as well as males, are interdependent.

Written By Isabella

Isabella Martinez, your go-to relationship advisor and creator of Life Falcon. I love diving into love, life, and star signs, sharing helpful tips and interesting thoughts with you.

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